Monday, April 15, 2013

Four lessons from ENSIA Live every nonprofit should live by

Last Thursday, my non-profit colleagues and I attended ENSIA live -- a talk series by people tackling some of the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Although the talk was about the interplay between design, housing, and health there were key take away messages that virtually any nonprofit can benefit from. Although the speaker, CCNY graduate Peter Williams, touched on the importance of differentiating between output and impact -- one of my favorite subjects -- I will focus on other notable lessons most nonprofits should adopt.
  1. You can't separate art/creativity from solutions: Although the first 30 minutes were a visual/performance art production, I thought it was important to activate both the left and right sides of the brain when thinking about community issues. This is especially true because most people come into community worth thinking they can simply re-package what they do day-to-day in their corporate job and rock at community building. 
  2. Systems vs. reductionist thinking: The main theme of the talk was that we must think in systemic ways about how design, architecture, and hygiene to combat infectious diseases. This was presented in contrast to the reductionist approach of "let's just give these poor people some medication". This is very important in any community work, because most people think in a reductionist sense and they become extreme at pursuing one single silver bullet (i.e. let's use all our energy reducing carbon emissions) when the problem requieres multiple parts being treated together. In addition to the over-simplification, one of the reasons reductionist thinking is so popular in the nonprofit sector is because it is much easier to measure performance/outputs on a simplistic metric (e.g. let's get below 350 parts per million). This in return encourages the cycle of measuring outputs instead of impact. I should add that if an organization doesn't have the capacity to takle issue in a systemic fashion, at least be open about the systemic nature of the problem and that your work is only a part to the puzzle.
  3. You must be community centric: The work the speaker does is building homes that are more conducive for healthy living conditions in order to reduce the risk of disease in vulnerable communities. He talked about how the architectes would go and spend several months on the ground with the community to share ideas and learn from them. They would also go back once the designs are finished to test them on the ground to ensure they are culturally sensitive and are fit for the realities on the community where these homes are built. This is extremely important in any "charitable" work. Community centric efforts are those that are designed with the community as real decision makers not just token suggestions that get ignored right after the meeting. An organization should always be intentional about how to listen to, incorporate, and respond to community
  4. You can't impose timelines on community interactions: While many people might be open to involving the community, they usually have unrealistic tim-lines -- probably form their corporate experience. The speaker talked about how much more time it took to interact and build relationships with the communities where they work and that they were committed to such a time-consuming approach  I don't think the speaker meant that there should be no timelines when engaging the community, rather the timelines just differ from those in profit-seeking endeavors. This is because, trust, understanding, and other basic human relationships take much longer to form than platonic transactional ones.
Did you attend the event? Any other lessons you got from the talk? Please share in the comments.

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